Got a closet full of Patagonia and North Face? Ford has a new Explorer for you.
After years of making SUVs increasingly carlike in both ability and appearance, automakers are rediscovering the value in offering models with rugged looks and enhanced off-road abilities. Whether this trend is attributable to the rise of outdoorsy pastimes like hiking and overlanding or simply the result of buyers looking to stand out from America's ever-growing SUV herd, toughening up is "in" in a big way. Ford is attacking the trend headlong with its new Bronco 4x4, but it's also taking a more measured approach with its other nameplates, including this new-for-2022 Ford Explorer Timberline, a model sure to appeal to family-minded consumers whose closets and garage look like an REI store.
This three-row SUV definitely looks the part, with its beefier, higher-sidewall tires, steel-skid-plated underbelly and unique front and rear fascias that integrate prominent tow hooks. As seen here, a new dark-carbonized grille is available with integrated auxiliary lighting as a dealer-installed option. Ford says the latter is 2.5 times as bright as the headlamps' high beams -- perfect for illuminating trails or campgrounds at sunset. All told, the Timberline lights up as a handsome-looking package, particularly the new front and rear treatments, complete with Ember Red accent detailing.
As you'd hope, the Timberline comes standard with all-wheel drive, and critically, Ford engineers augment the model's hardware with a Torsen limited-slip rear differential to keep things moving when the going gets rough-ish. This vehicle has 8.7 inches of ground clearance, the result of a modest 0.8-inch ride height lift thanks in part to more aggressive 18-inch Bridgestone Dueler all-terrain rubber (P265/65) and a 0.5-inch suspension lift. Those redesigned front and rear bumpers are good for slightly better off-road geometry, as well, including an approach angle of 23.5 degrees, a breakover angle of 18.9 degrees and a departure of 23.7 degrees. That said, none of these values stand out as particularly noteworthy.
Interestingly, Ford also repurposes some of the suspension bits employed on the Explorer's Police Interceptor Utility variant, including heavier-duty shocks, springs and anti-roll bars, albeit in a slightly different state of tune. The Timberline's steering rack is also an uprated, cop-spec item and Ford also adds a unique front rebound spring for the tough stuff.
For my late-winter Michigan drive (the associated photos are courtesy of a colleague in altogether sunnier California), I find the Timberline's on-pavement ride to be slightly flintier than I recall experiencing in other Explorers, but not to the point of being objectionably stiff. This may be due to the blustery cold, especially as the Bridgestone's taller sidewalls seem like they ought to be enough to counterbalance the Timberline's rejiggered suspension. In any case, tire noise is more noticeable, but that's to be expected given this model's knobbier treads.
On the plus side, despite its extra height, the Timberline doesn't handle ponderously, doing a commendable job of avoiding excessive body roll. In fact, this sixth-generation Explorer's rear-wheel-drive-based chassis offers good fun and ride discipline on cobbled dirt roads, further bolstering driver confidence with surprisingly direct steering.
Take a closer look inside and you'll find an attractive, model-exclusive Deep Cypress interior complete with faux leather seats set off with heathered cloth inserts and orange stitching. A stone-mesh-look appliqué on the dash and satin silver trim provide further differentiation and a set of rubber floor liners help keep the Great Outdoors from sullying your new rig's Pretty Nice Indoors.
Unfortunately, the Timberline's very limited options list means you're stuck with Ford's older Sync 3 infotainment system displayed on a modest 8-inch touchscreen. This makes for a perfectly serviceable setup, but it's easier to see things on the (admittedly oddly mounted) 10.1-inch portrait-oriented capacitive touchscreen available in other Explorer models. You also can't get those models' full 12.3-inch digital gauge clusters, you get a simple 4.2-inch unit sandwiched between easy-to-read analog gauges instead. At least Apple CarPlay and Android Auto tethering is along for the ride, but you'll have to bring a cord.
Despite its rough-and-tumble pretensions, this Explorer remains a family vehicle first and foremost, so it makes sense that the Timberline comes standard with Ford's Co-Pilot 360 Plus suite of advanced driver-assistance systems, including adaptive cruise control, lane-centering, evasive-steering assist and road-sign recognition as well as 360-degree camera coverage.
Oddly, Ford appears to be hedging its bets on Timberline by limiting the model to a single engine: the Explorer's base 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder tuned to produce 300 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque on premium fuel. That may seem like a small engine for a large three-row SUV, and indeed, this powerplant is not especially sonorous when pushed. That said, the mandatory automatic transmission shifts smoothly, and all 10 of its ratios help the little engine feel sprightly off the line while still delivering adequate freeway passing power.
Despite the small-displacement powerplant, Ford equipped all Timberlines with a standard Class III tow hitch rated at a very respectable 5,300 pounds -- plenty for a small travel trailer or a couple of ATVs. That tow rating actually beats a number of V6-powered competitors, including the Honda Pilot, Kia Telluride, Subaru Ascent and Toyota Highlander, all of which tap out at 5,000 pounds. Having said that, if I planned to tow often or even load up all seven seats and the cargo hold regularly, I'd strongly consider splurging on one of the Explorer's premium trims (e.g., King Ranch or Platinum) in order to score Ford's 3.0-liter EcoBoost and its additional 100 hp and 105 pound-feet of torque. Those models may only boast 300 additional pounds of towing capacity, but the extra power would be worth it.
With its gnarlier rubber and modestly taller profile, it should come as no surprise that the Explorer Timberline's fuel economy takes a slight hit. EPA estimates call for 19 mpg city, 22 mpg highway and 21 combined -- provided the model in question comes with stop/start tech. Due to the global semiconductor shortage, there are also Timberlines produced without the fuel-saving technology. These models net slightly lower figures: 19 mpg city, 21 mpg highway, 20 mpg combined. With the chip or without, those are unimpressive figures. The 3.6-liter V6-powered Jeep Grand Cherokee L 4x4 gets similar mileage -- 18/25/21 -- with substantially more off-road capability and towing power (6,200 pounds).
In fact, the new Grand Cherokee L is probably this Ford's single biggest problem -- it's simply much more capable off-road, yet it also packs a nicer interior, better cabin tech and superior refinement, all at a similar price. Frankly, I also prefer the Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade to this Ford -- and that was before those models received refreshes for the upcoming model year. In particular, the new-for-2023 Kia Telluride X-Pro and Hyundai Palisade XRT models follow similar look-tougher playbooks to directly appeal to adventure-ready Kühl-clad moms and dads.
That doesn't make the Timberline a bad value, though. At a starting price of $47,260 including $1,245 for delivery, this Ford is reasonably priced for a modern three-row with this kind of content. Then again, neither does this midsize SUV come across as a screaming deal.
In the end, the 2022 Ford Explorer Timberline's slightly brawnier demeanor may be enough to win over a few would-be Subaru Ascent buyers or perhaps coax a handful of folks out of GMC's similarly gussied Acadia AT4 or Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek. However, the more likely scenario is that this model will help Blue Oval dealers hold on to existing customers whose tastes have taken a turn for the outdoorsy. Ford researchers say current Explorer owners have reported a 56% increase in off-roading over the last three years, and this Timberline seems like a fine way to keep loyalists in the fold without breaking the bank.